London. One of the most notable aspects of Russia’s war in Ukraine is Moscow’s growing reliance on private military companies. However, it is also important to note that the Kremlin’s efforts to control private military groups are not ending their rivalry, but ultimately benefiting Russian President Vladimir Putin. The name of the Wagner Group, a private military company, has repeatedly cropped up in this war. Forces such as the Wagner Group, led by Yevgeny Prigozhin, have borne the brunt of the heaviest fighting, especially during the bloody battle for Bakhmut.
Here he lost a large number of his soldiers. In June 2023, the Ministry of Defense announced, apparently with the support of Russian President Vladimir Putin, that it would bring these irregular forces and militias under its control. At a recent press conference, Russia’s Deputy Defense Minister Nikolai Pankov recited odes in praise of these private companies and their affiliated fighters. He claimed that there has been a significant increase in these groups among citizens wanting to “protect the motherland” and explained how to join them.
The announcement was seen as an indication of Russia’s urgent need for human resources and its desire to avoid compulsory conscription of the civilian population. Not only this, it was also taken as further proof of the tussle between Prigozhin and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. While Prigozhin refused to sign the new contract, the Akhmat group of Chechen forces did not delay in signing the contract. Pankov’s announcement is significant.
The situation was different until Putin signed off on changes to the defense regulations in November 2022. In the past, under Article 13 of the Constitution of the Russian Federation, there was a complete ban on “the formation of civil associations, their activities, their goals, etc.” Article 71 of the constitution also states that issues like defence, security, war, peace, foreign policy and international relations etc. come under the prerogative of the government and private companies cannot be involved in these. The criminal code also criminalises the activities of mercenaries, including “recruiting, financing or otherwise supporting such soldiers”, as well as the use of, or participation in, mercenaries in armed conflict. . Putin’s amendment to the Defense Law seems to be changing this.
The amendments were implemented by Shoigu’s order of 15 February 2023, which set the procedure for providing weapons, military equipment and logistics to private military formations, as well as setting conditions of service. There have been signs of a growing importance and acceptance of private forces within Russia. In April 2023, the deputy governor of Novosibirsk announced that employees of private military companies would be able to use rehabilitation certificates issued to official military veterans of the Ukraine War to access services. There have also been reports in the Russian media that Wagner recruitment centers have opened in 42 cities across the country. The Wagner Group recruits heavily from Russian prisons.
A range of irregular forces are active in Ukraine, including Ramzan Kadyrov’s Chechen forces, the Kadyrovtsy. It is officially under the command of the Russian National Guard (Rosgvardia), along with private forces such as Wagner, Redut, Patriot and Potok. There is rivalry between different groups for resources, supremacy and other reasons. The war of words between Prigozhin and Shoigu is well known. Both leave no stone unturned in criticizing each other. However, these differences are also beneficial to some extent for Putin. While the Kremlin is examining all options to continue its fight in Ukraine, it also wants to avoid compulsory recruitment of civilians into the army. In view of this, taking control of private military companies will only benefit Putin.
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